Hegel on dialectic and saving religion [EP]

[This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. It continues an earlier post, Metaphysical solutions to Kant: from Hegel to Nietzsche.]

Hegel on dialectic and saving religion

hegel-50x60We are now, however, talking about a very different Reason than the Enlightenment one. Hegel’s reason is fundamentally a creative function, not a cognitive one. It does not come to know a pre-existing reality; it brings all of reality into existence.

More notoriously, Hegel’s reason operates by dialectical and contradictory means, and not in accordance with the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction.

Hegel’s dialectic is driven partly by the fact that by the early nineteenth century evolutionary ideas are in the air. In contrast to Kant’s belief that the subjective categories of reason are necessarily unchanging and universal, Hegel argued that the appropriate categories themselves are changeable. But Hegel’s dialectic is a special kind of evolution, one designed less to be responsive to discoveries in biology than to square with Judeo-Christian cosmology.

Judeo-Christian cosmology had traditionally been plagued by metaphysical assertions that were repugnant to reason. Respect for reason during the Enlightenment had led accordingly to a significant decline in religious belief among the intellectuals. Aristotelian reason cannot countenance a god that creates something out of nothing, that is both three and one, that is perfect but creates a world that contains evil. Accordingly, the thrust of Enlightenment theology had been to alter religion by eliminating its contradictory theses in order to make it compatible with reason. Hegel’s strategy was to accept that Judeo-Christian cosmology is rife with contradictions—but to alter reason in order to make it compatible with contradiction.

kant-silhouette-75x134Here Hegel made another significant step beyond Kant and further away from the Enlightenment. Kant had come close to the truth, Hegel believed, in developing the antinomies of reason in the first Critique. Kant’s purpose there was to show that reason is out of its depth when it tries to figure out noumenal truths about reality. He did so by developing four pairs of parallel arguments on four metaphysical issues and by showing that in each case reason leads to contradictory conclusions. One can prove that the universe must have had a beginning in time, but one can equally soundly prove that the universe must be eternal. One can prove the world must be made up of simplest parts and also that it cannot be, that we have free will and that strict determinism is true, that God must exist and that He does not exist.[24] These contradictions of reason show, Kant concluded, that reason can never know reality, and that therefore our reason is limited to structuring and manipulating its subjective creations.

Hegel thought that Kant had missed a deep point here. The antinomies are not a problem for reason, contrary to Kant but rather the key to the whole universe. The antinomies of reason are a problem only if one thinks that logical contradictions are a problem. That was Kant’s mistake—he was too trapped in the old Aristotelian logic of non-contradiction. What Kant’s antinomies show is not that reason is limited but rather that we need a new and better kind of reason, one that embraces contradictions and sees the whole of reality as evolving out of contradictory forces.

Such a conception of contradictory evolution is compatible with Judeo-Christian cosmology. That cosmology begins with a creation ex nihilo, posits a perfect being that generates evil, believes in a just being that gives humans independent judgment but punishes them for using it, includes accounts of virgin births and other miracles, says that the infinite becomes finite, the immaterial becomes material, the essentially unitary becomes plural, and so on. Given the primacy of that metaphysics, reason must give way. Reason, for example, must be adapted to the demands of this metaphysics of creation:

“As yet, there is nothing and there is to become something. The beginning is not pure nothing, but a nothing from which something is to proceed; therefore being, too, is already contained in the beginning. The beginning, therefore, contains both, being and nothing, is the unity of being and nothing; or is non-being which is at the same time being, and being which is at the same time non-being.”[25]

While that account of creation is incoherent from the perspective of Aristotelian reason, such a poetically grand-sounding drama of evolution by contradiction is perfectly rational —if one grants that reason contains within itself contradiction, that analysis consists in seeking the implicit contradiction within anything and teasing it out in order to put the contradictory elements explicitly in tension with each other, thus leading to a resolution that both goes beyond the contradiction to another evolutionary stage while at the same time preserving the original contradiction. Whatever that means.

Hegel thus explicitly rejected Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction: Absolutely everything depends on “the identity of identity and non-identity,” Hegel wrote in The Science of Logic.[26]

Hegelian dialectical reason also differs from Enlightenment reason by implying a strong relativism, against the universality of Enlightenment reason. For all of Hegel’s talk of the ultimate Universal perspective of the Absolute, from any other perspective nothing holds for long: dialectic injects contradiction into reality at any given time as well as across eras. If everything is evolving by the clash of contradictions, then what is metaphysically and epistemologically true in one epoch will be contradicted by what is true in the next, and so on.

Finally, Hegel’s reason differs from Enlightenment reason by not only being creative of reality and in embracing contradiction, but also by being a fundamentally collective function rather than an individual one. Here again, Hegel went beyond Kant in rejecting the Enlightenment. While Kant preserved some elements of individual autonomy, Hegel rejected those elements. Just as the Judeo-Christian cosmology sees everything as God working out His plan for the world in, around, and through us, for Hegel individuals’ minds and whole being are a function of the deeper forces of the universe operating upon them and through them. Individuals are constructed by their surrounding cultures, cultures that have an evolutionary life of their own, those cultures themselves being a function of yet still deeper cosmic forces. The individual is a tiny emergent aspect of the largest whole, the collective Subject’s working itself out, and the creation of reality occurs at that level with little or no regard for the individual. The individual is merely along for the ride. Speaking in Philosophy of History of collective reason’s operations, Hegel stated that as “Universal Reason does realize itself, we have indeed nothing to do with the individual empirically regarded”; “This Good, this Reason, in its most concrete form, is God. God governs the world; the actual working of his government—the carrying out of his plan—is the History of the World.”[27]


[24] Kant 1781, A426-A452.

[25] Hegel 1812-16, 73.

[26] Hegel 1812-16, 74.

[27] Hegel 1830-31, 35-36.

Bibliography [pdf] [html]

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

One thought on “Hegel on dialectic and saving religion [EP]

  • August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    I agree with you. In my doctoral dissertation I am trying to show that Hegel’s dialectic is less on the line of the classical philosophy than a brilliant rediscovery of the importance of the contradiction as the key for the understanding of the life mystery through and from his criticism of judeo-christianism in his youth.

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